Film - Not a Lost Art
This week I would like to talk a little about using film to photograph subjects; especially in fine art, landscape and nature. There is no way I can touch on all the details related to using film in this blog post. However, if you would like to start a dialog with me about using film, I am happy to discuss it directly with you. Just contact me on my website www.wonderworksphotography.com.
A reasonably skilled photographer can get outstanding results using film by taking control of his or her workflow from photograph through to print. The front end of the workflow is analog film photography and the development of that film. The backend of the workflow consists of digital processes; including scanning the film, and then post processing and printing.
With a minimal investment in time and money, a photographer can step into this world. Medium and Large format cameras and lenses are not nearly as expensive as digital SLRs and lenses. There is no need to farm your film development out to a lab and very good film scanners are affordable and interface easily and quickly to your existing computer equipment. Once you have a rich, beautiful scanned image from your film, your existing digital post processing and printing processes will work great.
So why should you consider film:
Resolution is one of the biggest drivers for me. Let me give you a little history and some personal insights with the help of an article on this subject by Ken Rockwell:
Medium and Large format film has more resolution. This becomes important as print size increases to wall size but is invisible in 5 x 7" prints. In my world as a sunshine artist, 32x48, 36x48, 40x54 and similar size prints rule the purchase parade. And as I delve deeper and deeper into the exhibition world with my new 2-enVision black and white fine art, similar sizes and larger are important.
Convenience has always won out over ultimate quality throughout the history of photography. Huge home-made wet glass plates led to store-bought dry plates which led to 8 x 10" sheet film which led to 4 x 5" sheet film which led to 2-1/4" roll film which led to 35mm which led to digital. As the years roll on the ultimate quality obtained in each smaller medium drops.
When it comes to both digital and analog formats, photographers want to know that their efforts will result in sharp, high-resolution photographs. With digital image sensors, we determine resolution by counting the number of pixels within a given area. Film does not have pixels, so just as different digital sensors produce different resolutions, different types of film also produce different resolutions. Roger N. Clark’s analysis of standard 35mm film showcased that depending on the type of film used, the resolution fell between 4 and 16 million pixels. Considering that entry level digital cameras produce around 24 MP, 35mm film doesn’t have much of an advantage in this scenario.
But as we move into medium and large format film, everything changes. When I use medium format 120mm film, I produce a 145 MP image after digital scanning. And when I use my 4x5, my resolution jumps to over 450 MP. If as a skilled photographer, I take the right shot at the right time with the right skill, I have an image that can be printed over 60” by 50” without interpolating a single pixel.
The other major driver for me is Dynamic Range. Results for the same fine art, nature or landscape image taken with film and also with a digital sensor seem very, very different to me. Of course, I don’t have a $250,000 digital camera; and the results from digital HDR, to me, are very disappointing. The biggest reason the results look so different to me is the highlights. Our human eyes see things the way film does. Our eyes and film overload and adjust gracefully when things get light or wash out. Film replicates what our eyes do far better than a digital sensor. Digital's weak point is that highlights abruptly clip; its characteristic curve heading straight to 255-white and then crashing into a wall.
And film’s dynamic range maintains its ability to retain details in highlights and shadows over a wide range of stops; even when you overexpose it. It’s very difficult to blow out film even when overexposing by 2-3 stops – and the highlights with film are just absolutely beautiful.
So if you are not that worried about resolution, I think you should consider that digital has a major weakness when compared to film, and that is dynamic range. Your digital camera simply will not handle light as well as film does, and the light will not look as soft and natural and even as it does with film. Jumping back to an earlier blog post: Photography is from the greek photos, genitive of phos meaning “light” and graphe “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”. Its all about the light, the shapes and the lines.
This is a a very personal observation but when I shoot film I slow down, I really read the light, I really evaluate the scene, I take my time, I let my imagination soar, I build my canvas piece by piece. My eyes are looking straight through the camera at the same light and on the same film plane as my camera. I now that the film is seeing what I am seeing. I feel like an artist. I feel like I am capturing a part of the world in its true nature. I am not translating the world into an approximation of 1’s and 0’s on an electronic sensor. I am borrowing the image and allowing the light that reveals it to impress itself onto my film emulsion.
I don’t want to get into all the things you can do with a field camera in this blog post and I know that tilt and shift lenses are available now for digital cameras. But my 4x5 with two adjustable planes (film and lens, rise, fall, tilt, shift, swing) can do things with an image that I just never thought were possible. If you want to learn, reach out and I can share some materials with you.
Please don’t think that I am negative on using digital cameras. I have three. I made some decent money shooting digital images for quite some time. I also like to shoot infrared and developing that film is a bear, so I use digital. When I want to shoot fast, like my piece that so many of you like of the hummingbirds, I reach for my digitals; no way I would even try that with film. If I’m jumping on a quick little road trip with my wife, I grab a digital and a medium zoom lens. Digital is convenient and it offers superior quality and flexibility, especially for portrait work (I don’t shoot people :). But film is king for large prints and reproduction where fine art light treatments, textures, nature and landscapes are the subjects.